Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 349 | Agosto 2010



Municipal Autonomy Is More Threatened than Ever

This long-time municipal activist offers a historical synthesis of the relations between the central government and the municipalities and an analysis of the threats municipal autonomy is now facing.

Silvio Prado

My point of departure—and my arrival point—consist of two key ideas. The first is that municipal autonomy in Nicaragua is facing the greatest risk ever in its brief life; it has never been so threatened. The second, which is a product of the first, is that the evidence from studies we’re doing shows that the relationship between the central government and the municipal governments is being rolled back to the model of the eighties, when intergovernmental relations were administered through the party. This is very serious for those of us who favor municipal strength and autonomy.

Two models of municipal government

There are two basic models of municipal administration in the world. One is a managerial model, which understands municipal mayors as intendancies in charge of services and of managing and administering the decisions made by the central government. The other model grants more political autonomy to the municipalities but haggles with them over financial resources. Academics say the managerial model is British and the autonomy model more French. Today there are many other hybrid models.

Our municipalities have been moving more toward autonomy, based on the model inherited from colonial times when municipalities had a much greater self-governing capacity due to their huge distance from the central power of the metropolis. Currently, the FSLN government is favoring a move from this model—one that vindicates the importance of autonomous self-government and self-management in the sense of capacity to implement its own decisions—to a more managerial one that, paradoxi¬cally, is closer to the neoliberal model.

The difficult rebirth
of municipal autonomy

Municipal autonomy was developed during the governments of Violeta Chamorro, Arnoldo Alemán and Enrique Bolaños, but at first it had no economic resources and little capacity to do things. It was more a political autonomy than a financial one. That gap started closing as a regulatory framework for the municipalities was shaped. Between 1990 and 2006 a series of laws were approved that strengthened the capacity for both self-government and self-financing, allowing the municipalities to manage their own development. The most important one, the Law of Budgetary Transfers, established the annual transfer of a percentage of the national budget to the mayoral offices. The transfers were progressively to reach 10% of the budget, assigning amounts for each municipality based on four criteria: income capacity, capacity to collect municipal property taxes, population and execution of the transfers. It was done that way to stop the transfers being used as a political weapon by the central governments. Thus, between 1990 and 2006 the municipalities’ regulatory framework was gradually structured and their profile sketched out to make them local governments that would manage their own development and have the capability to exercise their autonomy.

This path generated its fair share of tensions with the central governments. So many, in fact, that not until the Bolaños government did the Executive dare to send the budgetary transfers bill to the National Assembly for approval. This bill hadn’t engendered much discussion during the Chamorro government because the municipalities were barely being reborn, but by Alemán’s time the debate was strong. Although a group of mayors did very active lobbying, the bill still didn’t make it to the Assembly in the Alemán administration due to a lack of political will.

From deconcentration
to decentralization

We can’t forget that we’ve historically had a unitary and centralist State in a country too tiny to be federal. Everything began to change with the 1987 Constitution, which restored municipal autonomy, suspended by the Somocista government for its nearly half-century of existence. Then a year later, in 1988, the first Municipalities Law was passed and a new word—»decentralization»—began to be bandied about. Decentralization means the transfer of power, resources and political and administrative competencies from the central government to local ones. While regionalization existed in the eighties, it simply meant “deconcentrating” executive and FSLN control from the center to the nine regions administratively defined in those years. In other words, decentralization is a relinquishing of power to new holders while deconcentration is a fanning out of power by its original holders.

Save in the Caribbean Coast, which has autonomous regional governments, Nicaragua has no intermediate departmental (provincial) or regional governments between the central and municipal governments. This triggered a broad debate during the three previous governments around the issue of decentralization, specifically around what kind of decentralization policy to establish. On one side were the neoliberals, with their doctrine and their push to decentralize decision-making, while transferring public resources to private enterprise or NGOs rather than local governments. But although NGOs are nonprofit, they aren’t entities of public law. And the minute one takes public sector competencies and turns them over to the private sector, it amounts to privatizing the public domain. If, for example, the central government turns over the collection and treatment of solid wastes to a private business or an NGO instead of the municipal governments or any other competency, it’s privatizing them, even if it’s called outsourcing.

Autonomy won an intense debate

There was an intense debate over what kind of decentralization to apply until July 2006, when in one of his last acts of government President Bolaños published the National Decentralization Policy Oriented to Local Development through Presidential Decree 45-2006. The reason for so much resistance is that Nicaragua’s governments have all been centralist and thus never wanted to legally reduce their own competencies even though it had been demonstrated between 1990 and 2006 that some became more effective if decentralized and assumed by the municipal governments.

The gamble on strengthening municipal autonomy won the debate thanks to the effort and participation of civil society and the mayors themselves, who demanded more autonomy, more resources, more political capacity to decide and more administrative capacity to organize themselves locally. It was a real victory, because the neoliberal vision predominant at the time was that private enterprise and the market were more efficient and should have more competencies than municipal governments, considered weak and corrupt.

The best option won, because the objective of private enterprise is maximum profit, while that of government is the common good. It was also the best option because we citizens can come before the public authority and demand our rights from the government we elected and pay taxes to. In contrast, we’re only clients of private enterprise and don’t even know who’s in charge, to whom we should direct our demands. There is a different relationship with local government than with private enterprise, which transforms civic participation into a commercial relationship. Neoliberalism would love nothing more than to covert citizens into clients; it’s one of its central ideas.

Institutionalizing civic participation
in municipal decentralization

Various laws grew out of the debate over decentralization, of which three were essential to strengthening the municipality and civic participation. One was the Municipal Budgetary Regime Law, which gave civic participation a radical twist by putting the decision about the municipal budget in the hands of the citizenry, in the spirit of the Porto Alegre Participatory Budget.

Another, the Fiscal Transfers Law, establishes the population’s discussion of the municipal budgets as a condition for making budgetary transfers. And the third was the Civic Participation Law, passed in 2003. It had a long maturation period within the decentralization debate, and was proposed by civil society rather than by any political party or municipal government. This law strengthens the regulatory framework for civic participation, based on the supposition that municipal government’s autonomy from the central level of government needs to be strengthened, particularly its self-governing capacity.

The FSLN strongly promoted
municipal autonomy back then

It has to be recognized that during all those years of debate, the FSLN-run local governments were always among the best promoters of the municipalities’ autonomous capabilities. The FSLN had some excellent mayors in those years, as Ethics and Transparency, IPADE and other civil society organizations were the first to recognize. The FSLN governments were always the most outstanding because they had a social vocation, were more open to citizens’ participation and were capable of innovating a new kind of relationship between authorities and population.

It also must be acknowledged that the FSLN’s National Assembly representatives were always among the most active in pushing the Civic Participation Law. Together with a few Liberals, they formed a kind of de facto coalition favoring decentralization, municipal autonomy and the strengthening of the municipalities.

During those years the Liberal mayors didn’t seem to give much importance to the municipal issue. It was as though autonomy didn’t matter to them and they were only interested in the fiscal transfers and the projects that came through the Rural Development Institute, the Emergency Social Investment Fund and the National Institute of Municipal Promotion.

New debates: The creation of CDDs

There have always been debates about municipal autonomy, and the creation of Departmental Development Councils (CDDs) under President Bolaños sparked another. The CDDs were conceived as a mid-level government arena for discussing the department’s development. This forum would bring together all the different authorities in a particular department: the delegates of the central government ministries, municipal mayors, departmental National Assembly representatives, judges, electoral officials and civil society representatives.

But their appearance on the municipal stage troubled the mayors, who worried that these councils would turn into an authority that ranked higher than the mayor’s office. It was a logical concern because they had two different legitimacies: the CDDs had appointed public officials while the municipal governments had elected ones. Why should a mayor submit to an appointed public official if he or she had been elected by the public’s direct and secret vote while there was no way to know whether the ministerial delegate had been given the nod based on capacity or clientelism? The mayors dug in their heels about subjecting their legitimacy to officials with a lesser legitimacy.

The FSLN supports new
civic participation experiences

During this period of debates and of a new legal framework, new experiences of civic participation were generated all over Nicaragua, enriched by the civic discussion of the municipal budgets. This participatory spirit even caught on in municipalities of the department of Chontales, for example, where there’s an anti-Sandinista tradition in which the word “organization” has a negative connotation. The population got involved in discussions about development plans, projects and budgets that were to a great extent stimulated by international cooperation, which was financing a large number of projects that promoted participation to consolidate democracy.

It should be underscored that these experiences mainly emerged in the FSLN municipal governments. Among other emblematic cases were those of the Estelí mayor’s office under the first term of Francisco Valenzuela and the Matagalpa mayor’s office, headed by Zadrach Zeledón, both of whom were reelected.

This has to be stressed particularly now, when things seem to have changed significantly, with today’s FSLN government vituperatively condemning those forms. Four years ago, in 2006, if a party could be said to have the best experiences of participation, it was the FSLN. Participation had taken root around the country regardless of the municipal government’s political stripe. So what happened? Why did no one raise a hand to argue against destroying forms of participation to make way for clearly party-based forms? I’ve asked that question of some colleagues in the governing party and their answer is that the Municipal Development Committees (CDMs) are rightwing Liberal organizations. But that only leads me to wonder why they were revolutionary four years ago and were the best arenas for coordination between the Sandinista municipal governments and civil society. Was some evaluation made of the Municipal and District Development Committees, the Residents’ Associations, all of them the result of the Civic Participation Law? And, if this law was neoliberal, why did the FSLN legislative bench vote for it and why were Sandinista mayors its best promoters?

Civil society takes on municipalism…
but the political parties don’t

An ever broader civil society sector of those of us who call ourselves “municipalists” was also emerging and strengthening throughout that process, resulting in the creation of the Local Development Network, to which I belong.

More and more people and centers started specializing on the issue of municipalities and university graduate degrees and studies were opened on municipalism. The topic moved from being of interest only to specialists to capturing the interest of broader and broader sectors of the population.

While this was happening in civil society, however, there was no place for this debate in the political parties. Nor did they create a specialization in municipal issues, despite the fact that only parties can run candidates in the municipal elections following the cancellation of the Associations of Popular Petition as a result of the pact between Alemán and Ortega in 1998. These associations were eliminated because in the 1996 elections—the last in which popular petition candidates could and did run—the idea had begun to catch on, taking votes away from the parties. Popular petition made possible candidates who were closer to the citizenry and not answerable to party control, making it more like direct democracy than the party options.

A big difference between
the PLC and FSLN... then

It’s useful to add a parenthesis here to examine how the PLC and FSLN have respectively treated the municipalities. If we review the bylaws of both parties, we see that the leadership posts related to the municipalities are low on the totem pole, at the commission rather than secretariat level.

In its 2002 bylaws, the PLC defined the functions of this post in no more than four lines, which had almost nothing to do with municipalism. This is particularly noteworthy given that they were still in possession of the majority of Nicaragua’s mayor’s offices at the time.

We find more material in the FSLN’s bylaws. In its 1998 Congress, the FSLN created many new commissions in its directive bodies, including the Municipal Affairs Commission. According to article 50 of the bylaws, its attributes are to “Follow up on the policies of party attention to those elected locally, proposing regulations to them, promoting technical, administrative and legal training among Sandinista mayors and Council members to strengthen the local governments…”

We can see how much the FSLN has changed since then in article 98 of title 6 of the bylaws, “The Party and the State,” a text that has never been reformed. It reads: “In carrying out their public posts, FSLN militants and affiliates will act above their personal interests, strictly complying with the Political Constitution and the laws of the Republic.”

And here comes the best part: “FSLN militants will act in the sphere of their competency as public officials without organic dependence on the party structures. The institutional authority of the legislative representative, the mayor and the municipal or departmental council members are not subordinated to the organic structures of the party.”

This disposition was maintained in the bylaws approved in the 2006 Congress. But what has actually happened following the FSLN’s return to control of the national government? The post of FSLN municipal affairs commissioner was fused with that of the executive president of FISE, one of the key entities for regulating relations between the central and local governments today.

What has happened
between 2007 and 2010?

What’s happening now? First of all it must be said that over the past four years, the government hasn’t reformed a single law approved in previous years that had to do with the municipalities; it hasn’t removed so much as a comma. Therefore, they are still in effect, establishing that civic participation is exercised in the legal arenas: the CDMs, district development committees and residents’ associations.

But we’ve begun to see worrying central government decisions since 2007 that violate this existing legality. The first was the creation, via presidential decree 112-2007, of the Councils of Citizens’ Power (CPC), ignoring the Municipalities Law and the Civic Participation Law. Since the majority of community leaders have a Sandinista background and tradition, why suddenly ask them to change hats? If they were working in the CDMs, why do they now have to join the CPCs and Cabinets of Citizens’ Power? If they had been community leaders in the District Committee, why did they now have to switch to the district CPC? The reason is that they did indeed change hats.

At that moment we wondered what this change would mean for the relationship between the central government and the municipal governments. We soon began to find out.

Ocotal: A first bad sign

A first sign came soon after Daniel Ortega took office in 2007, when he went to Ocotal to meet with Mel Zelaya, then President of Honduras. In the public event, merchants asked Ortega to order the mayor to re-establish the market in its traditional place. The FSLN mayor had built a new municipal market on the outskirts of the city, near the bus terminal, in accord with the development plans approved by the former mayor. The merchants didn’t want to be way out there; they wanted to stay in the old market.

From the dais the President ordered the mayor to reopen the old market. Since when do Presidents stick their noses into issues as exclusively the domain of municipal governments as urban planning? Defending his development plans and his authority, the mayor refused. It was palpable proof of the fights over municipal autonomy that could be seen coming. A President and a mayor have the same legitimacy as both are elected by the people’s secret vote, although in the eyes of the local population the mayor’s legitimacy is greater, even if the President was elected by a more votes. After all, the person the population sees every day, pays taxes to and demands accountability from is the mayor.

Centralizing property titles: Another bad sign

There was another sign in February 2008. President Ortega re-centralized the granting of property titles to neighborhoods and settlements, violating Law 309, which establishes that this faculty corresponds to the mayor’s office. The President modified it de facto, by decree, giving himself that faculty.

Why did he do it? This government needs to be seen giving things away every day. The Executive asked the Attorney General’s Office to issue title deeds for lands so the President of the Republic would be the one giving them out and thus appearing in the photo. After all, it’s not the same if the mayor of Nindirí appears in a shot giving out property titles as if the President does it as the Gran Pater.

The 2008 municipal fraud: A super serious sign

Another super serious sign was the fraud in the November 2008 municipal elections, which we won’t comment on because all that needs to be said has already been sufficiently commented on. The anomalies committed in those elections indicate to us that the President’s will was to appropriate the greatest number of mayoralties to align them with the central government.

Months later, in January 2009, the President announced that the new municipal governments would subordinate themselves to the CPCs. What happened to the FSLN bylaws establishing that municipal authorities mustn’t be subordinated to any party authority? However much we favor civic participation and direct democracy, we have to ask why an authority elected by the people’s vote must submit, not to a central authority, but to someone from the CPCs, which are part of the private sphere? If this is the case, why hold elections anymore?

Still more signs, culminating
with the firing of several mayors

Between 2009 y 2010 it was learned that the central government had bought off Liberal councilors to weaken the Municipal Councils in the nearly 40 mayoral offices not currently run by the FSLN. This showed the “firmness” of the Liberal councilors… as solid as a nobleman. Yet another step in the destruction of municipal autonomy was President Ortega’s August 2009 call for consultations on the municipal budgets, this time violating the Municipal Budget Regimen Law, which establishes the procedure and calendar for such consultations. Then, starting in May-June 2010, we’ve seen the worst signs yet; the firing of a number of mayors.

Thus, what we’ve seen between 2007 and 2010 is an ascending curve, beginning with the imposition of the CPCs and peaking with the arbitrary removal of mayors who didn’t submit to the orientations from the FSLN Secretariat. And that’s why we can state that municipal autonomy has never been as threatened as now.

How does all this compare with
the three previous governments?

What had we seen in the three previous governments, between 1990 and 2006? That the FSLN mayors defended municipal autonomy in response to their adversary in the central government. That they made use of that autonomy to self-govern, to create political capacities, sympathies and roots in their municipalities. By contrast, the Liberal mayors were never so enthusiastic about autonomy. In fact, they were more interested in weakening it, interpreting decentralization as a way to take competencies away from the municipal government and turn it over to private enterprise and civil society.

The FSLN mayors used autonomy to strengthen their self-government while the PLC mayors derided it. It’s worth asking whether municipal autonomy grew more or less in those years thanks to the performance of the FSLN mayors because it worked to protect them against the adversary Liberal governments. Now, in other circumstances, instead of a competitive advantage, municipal autonomy is seen as an obstacle to the goal of constructing a monolithic State under the FSLN’s control. In other words, autonomy no longer has anyone to defend it; it’s opposed by both sides.

The FSLN is actively destroying it. And the PLC? Did it do anything to defend the municipal governments stolen from it in the November 2008 elections? According to the declarations of the PLC electoral magistrates, the fraud was the fruit of an agreement between the two parties, in which the PLC allowed itself to be robbed. Under those parameters, too, municipal autonomy has never been at such risk.

Another violation:
Imposing municipal ordinances

If we think the issue has concluded with the removal of the mayors, we’re sadly mistaken. Another way to violate municipal autonomy has recently come to light: the imposition, from the Presidency, of municipal ordinances. Ordinances are municipal laws valid only in the territory of the municipality that issues them. Nothing is more important than ordinances in demonstrating the autonomous capacity to govern in a municipality. But what we’ve been seeing in the past few weeks is the presidency sending orders down to the municipal authorities.

As far as we know, the presidency has so far issued two ordinances. One is to assign functions to the deputy mayors, going over the head of the Municipal Councils, to which that faculty legally corresponds. The other is to impose a planning system on all municipalities. These ordinances have been sent to the mayor’s offices printed on paper bearing the central government’s logo and motto, allowing no possibility for the municipal powers to modify them. They are told only to fill them out with some data and add the date, as if they were questionnaires. Naturally, these ordinances have sparked rejection from non-FSLN mayors and, from what I’ve been able to glean, also from a few FSLN mayors, especially the ordinance that dictates the functions of the deputy mayors.

The curious details of the
municipal planning ordinance

The ordinance imposing a new municipal planning system on all mayors makes no reference to the existing system, which has cost a ton of money! The planning system is a technical instrument that had been developed down to the last level, but what is imposed in the ordinance is political discourse. The ordinance says the purpose of the new system is to “strengthen the triple alliance among the people, municipal government and government of reconciliation and national unity.” It speaks of “converting the municipal governments into active, effective and efficient allies of the government of reconciliation and national unity.” So is this an ordinance to create a municipal planning system or a political proclamation? We don’t want the municipal governments to be competitors or enemies of the central government; but each municipality has its own government plans and development strategies according to its particular characteristics, and the central government must respect them.

The ordinance also reads that “the municipality is organized and functions through the Cabinets of Citizens’ Power,” thus misrepresenting the Municipalities Law, whose first article establishes that “the municipality is organized and functions with the citizens’ participation.” The law doesn’t put any proper names on that participation or give it full authority. This ordinance is clearly a de facto legitimization of the CPCs and it’s only logical that many mayors would reject it. What would have happened in Nicaragua if 10 years ago President Alemán had ordered that the municipalities would be organized with, not to mention through, the JCOPS, the community organization he invented to compete with the pro-FSLN Communal Movement?

The worst aspect of this ordinance is that it specifies the composition of the municipal planning commission: a technical commission that previously consisted of professional personnel is now to be made up of the mayor, two members of the Municipal Council and the Cabinet of Citizens’ Power. What happens where there is no such Cabinet? Or where a residents’ association would be more useful? Or where the people making up the Cabinet don’t have the preparation to do that planning? What will happen if a Municipal Council rejects the idea of creating such a commission and decides to continue working with the previous system, which hasn’t been repealed?

This is very serious. If this ordinance hands over to the CPCs the planning of local development policies, taking this faculty away from the municipal government administrative bodies, who will the CPCs answer to? And who can the population demand accountability from? How will an entity with a party skew manage the wellbeing of all? If the priorities of the population that doesn’t want to join the CPCs end up excluded from local assessments, the responses provided by the CPC will be exclusionary by definition.

What real leadership
do the CPCs have?

We’re currently processing a study we’ve done based on a survey of 7,600 people from 27 municipalities to investigate the legitimacy of the municipal governments elected in 2008. One of the questions is how the most important public investment decisions are made in the municipality. Nearly half (45%) of the total responded that they are made by the mayor together with the Council, with little or no consultation. Another 29% said they are made by the mayor with the political leaders linked to the mayor’s office, whether FSLN political secretaries or PLC or ALN Liberal leaders. Only 3.9% answered that the decisions are made and/or approved by the CPCs. It’s worth noting that 32% of those interviewed said they sympathize with the FSLN, 17.6% with opposition parties and 50.4% identified themselves as independent.

This means that the acclaimed «direct democracy,» whose decision-making leadership corresponds to the CPCs, according to the government, isn’t real. Our survey suggests that in the real world the CPCs are only called upon to mobilize in public events or conduct some activities, but aren’t taken into account for deliberation and decision-making. So although they are presented with force and protagonism, it’s a fake. Some CPC members told us they don’t go to meetings because they aren’t taken into account. If that’s the case, these ordinances giving the CPCs such a leading role are only ways for the governing party to achieve hegemonic control of the municipalities.

Can party political secretaries
run municipal government?

In reality, municipal power is being handed over to the FSLN political secretaries, people with very little municipalist experience but unconditionally loyal to President Ortega. It would be very hard for a political secretary to manage the wellbeing of an entire population. Will people who aren’t with the FSLN feel invited by its political secretary to a session to discuss municipal problems? As a gentleman from Macuelizo said, “I’m not going to a meeting at the FSLN office to discuss my community’s problems.” Nor does a political secretary have the technical tools for municipal administration. Besides, to whom will that secretary be accountable if he or she isn’t a public official?

Some experiences in Nicaragua have shown that a relationship with the population that reaches beyond parties, without sectarian management, governing for the whole population, has highly positive results. And, ironically, the FSLN has had the best experiences of this sort. The current tragedy is that the FSLN mayors are now being ordered to govern with a sectarian vision. As a gentleman from Catarina said, “What’s the point of paving a street if they then put FSLN banners all over the barrio and even require me to put them up on my house, even though I don’t belong to the FSLN?” This sectarianism is creating problems that also have to do with democracy. If there’s no place in municipal administration for the interests of everyone, the assess¬ments and policies will be erroneous.

The 1987 Constitution laid the groundwork for Nicaragua to function with a multi-level government: the central government, the regional governments in the Caribbean and the municipal governments, each with amply supported autonomies. Now, these counterfeit ordinances are trying to erase all that with one swipe, turning the mayor’s offices into “colonies” of the central government!

The CDM in Jinotega balks at the ordinance

The municipal government of Jinotega approved Ortega’s planning ordinance, but the CDM there, which put a lot of energy into its own creation and development and is very rooted in local society, balked because this ordinance leaves it with no participation unless it turns itself into a CPC. It has filed a revision suit with the municipal authorities, and if that appeal doesn’t get it anywhere, it will take its suit to the courts. But can its members expect anything from today’s law courts?

To whom can the citizenry appeal? It’s worth exhausting the laws, but if people don’t feel that municipal autonomy belongs to them and defend it, they’ll be ignored. What can we do when there’s no rule of law? Some government spokespeople even derisively say that the rule of law is a rightwing concept!

If there’s no rule of law, all that remains is pressure from society. How much capacity will the CDM in Jinotega have to make itself heard? The people there have experience of using grassroots pressure to bring about changes. The civic participation model there was largely articulated around the demand to repair the highway destroyed by Hurricane Mitch and construct an alternative one. Their experience has taught them that the only way to get anything is to mobilize and create pressure.

And the curious details of the
ordinance on deputy mayors

The other ordinance, the one that creates functions for deputy mayors, is so detailed it’s ridiculous, such as ordering the deputy mayor to officially sign checks “to dynamize the financial processes…” But most of all, it takes away from the mayor functions that were assigned by the Municipalities Law and orders them to be ceded to the deputy mayor, who will now coordinate all municipal services (garbage collection, slaughterhouses, cleaning of streets, cemeteries, bridges and roads). The deputy mayor will also coordinate all environmental programs and projects and the secretariat of women, represent the municipality in the Cabinet of Citizens’ Power for tourism and coordinate the Cabinet for health, education and culture. What’s left for the mayor to do?

It’s also disrespectful to send all mayoral offices a standard ordinance, given that each municipality has its own characteristics. Why make the deputy mayor responsible for health if he or she knows nothing about it and the mayor has already hired a professional who does? It’s the job of the mayor and the municipal council to define and assign tasks to the deputy mayor. Sending out the same format to everyone to be swallowed like a pill shows a lack of respect and understanding, expecting everybody to line up behind it with no discussion. An act of folly like this, which transgresses both the law and the framework within which the municipal governments had been constructed, should have been the subject of a national debate, or at least a debate in the National Assembly. But it hasn’t happened, because nobody is defending municipal autonomy.

We’re back to the confusion
between party and state

Given this panorama, we have to conclude that the central government’s relationship with the municipalities has backpedaled to what it was in the eighties. In those years there was a central government, regional governments—the country was newly divided and organized into regions rather than departments—and municipal governments. But the municipal government authorities weren’t elected in those years; they were named by the central government, whose relationship to them was mediated through the regional governments, which weren’t elected either; they were headed by presidential delegates, who were also FSLN political secretaries. The relationship was established through the party, so the link was party political, not administrative. The mayors were given the line from on high and were expected to follow it.

In some of the recent dismissals of FSLN mayors, the FSLN’s head of municipal affairs simply called them at their offices to fire them in the name of the party. A shot to the neck of municipal autonomy. In the case of Boaco, the FSLN political secretary of that municipality met with the councilors to order them to dismiss the Liberal mayor.

What’s happening is really serious: we’ve returned to the subordination of municipal governments not only to the central government, but also to the FSLN political secretary, who removes and appoints mayors the same way he removes and appoints ministerial delegates in his area.

We’ve returned not only to re-centralization, but also to party control of intergovernmental relations, to a system in which the party makes all local decisions. And nobody elected those political secretaries; they aren’t public officials, either elected or appointed; they are agents of the private sphere. So in addition to recentralizing relations among the central, regional and municipal government levels, they are privatizing them to the party.

It’s easier to rule than to govern

Why is the central government doing this? I suspect it’s because it’s easier to govern this way than having to respect a multi-level government model, in conditions that oblige governance. It’s far more complex to govern without “ordering and commanding,” having to negotiate major decisions for the good governing of society as a whole. In a government model with autonomy at various levels, the head of State is obliged to negotiate, dialogue, make concessions. He or she can’t just impose things, but must get to the essence of politics rather than simply politicking. The problem people in the FSLN have today is that when they left government in 1990, it was a monolithic, homogeneous State that had never had a separation of powers. Returning to it now, they are coming up against a State that had advanced not only in the horizontal separation of powers, but also vertically, with municipal autonomy. All this is very complex for simple mentalities that only see political power as a whole and maintain the same approach to it as 19th-century autocrats.

Given all of this, we have the perception that the long way we’ve come, all the work we’ve done to strengthen municipal autonomy is being destroyed. The governing party is pulling down the little bit of municipal institutionality we had managed to build, defying the neoliberal governments. The FLSN hierarchs are seeing to it that the little we managed to squeeze out of neoliberalism is being returned to it. It‘s an enormous loss for Nicaragua.

Silvio Prado is the director of the Center for Political Studies and Analysis (CEAP) and a member of the Network for Democracy and Local Development.

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